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Missing identification process leaving Cyprus.

Author:

Stefanos Evripidou

THE PROCESS for identifying the remains of missing persons is leaving Cyprus once and for all after the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics (CING) refused to accept the terms on the table for a contract renewal.

Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou yesterday accused CING of not showing enough flexibility and not making the necessary sacrifices to keep the humanitarian project for the identification of the remains in Cyprus.

"Failure to sign the contract on behalf of CING leads the programme away from Cyprus," said Stefanou, adding, "We deeply regret the negative development on the issue".

He said the government, through Presidential Commissioner Giorgos Iacovou and even President Demetris Christofias, made "huge efforts" to keep the programme on the island but to no avail.

"Unfortunately the end result is not the one we had wished for," he said.

The institute's chairman Christos Phylactou said yesterday work on identification of the remains will now continue in a genetics laboratory abroad, most likely in Bosnia, after a majority of the CING board "wrongly" refused to accept the terms of the contract offered by the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP).

"In its wisdom, the board did not accept what was considered non-negotiable," said Phylactou.

Phylactou, who has subsequently resigned from the board, noted that all foreign labs that took part in an international tender process called by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the CMP last February accepted the same terms rejected by CING.

From the institute's 17 board members, only 13 voted on the contract tabled by the UN, of which seven voted against, securing a majority of one.

Stefanou acknowledged that the third member of the CMP, Christophe Girod, had set conditions during the long discussion of the identification process that were not easy for the institute to accept.

"We understand there is also the question of the institute's independence. But when you're talking about a humanitarian issue, as is the case of the missing, the Cyprus Genetics Institute should have shown more flexibility, and even made sacrifices to keep the programme in Cyprus.

"Unfortunately, that didn't happen with the result that the likelihood of the programme staying in Cyprus has now vanished," said the spokesman.

The issue of whether to sign a new contract with the CMP, which incorporates internationally accepted best practices in genetic identification, has been on the table for at least three years.

The CMP started discussions with the institute on introducing new, stricter standards in the identification process from 2008. While some demands were met, disagreement remained on a large number, including the requirement to hand over copies of the genetic profiles of relatives of the missing, and carry out "blind testing" in the DNA matching process.

In May 2011, the contract between the UNDP and CING expired. It was renewed for two more months, after which, no more remains were sent to the institute. Since then, CING has been working on identifying the backlog of remains sent before the contract's expiration.

During the next six months, further negotiations were held to reach an agreement that would keep the programme in Cyprus, a target for which the three-member CMP unanimously agrees on.

After failing to make progress, the UN decided to invite bids in an international tender process for the identification of the remains in February. A month later, it is believed the UN awarded the project to a lab in Bosnia.

At this point, the government got involved at its highest level, convincing UNDP headquarters in New York to give CING another chance. Negotiations with CING continued.

Meanwhile, the government commissioned independent geneticists to examine the terms of the contract. Their conclusion was that the terms were strict but reasonable and in accordance with international standards.

According to a source with knowledge on the issue, the CMP added a further demand for the appointment of a project manager to work full time on the programme, concerned that the current laboratory head Dr Marios Kariolou may already be overburdened with obligations.

Though the institute eventually agreed to this request in April, the CMP was not convinced, requesting greater details on the terms of reference of the project manager to be appointed. This coming and going between the two sides kept on going until this week, when the board's refusal to sign the contract appears to have been the final straw in the long-running saga.

The same source said CING was trying to negotiate the non-negotiable. As an international organisation, the UNDP was obliged to demand that best practices are followed in any contract signed with a genetics lab.

At the same time, the specific circumstances of Cyprus demand the strictest standards to ensure accuracy. DNA samples are collected from remains discovered decades later after being thrown in communal burial sites or down wells. Added to that is the higher level of endogamy in Cyprus.

Despite the fact CING is widely recognised as having the necessary quality of staff and technology to implement the international standards of best practices, it now seems certain the process will be taken abroad.

It remains to be seen how many relatives of the missing will take steps to stop their genetic profiles from being used by a lab abroad, thereby, preventing the process of identifying and returning the remains of their missing.

Last week, Vassilis Pantazis whose brother Philippos went missing in 1974, told the Cyprus Mail that he has taken legal steps to stop his genetic material from being used by any other body or entity except the CING. Pantazis said his primary motivation for securing a court order was that he had "lost trust" in the process.

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2012

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:May 26, 2012
Words:954
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